Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah
Question: Assalamu alaykum
Why did the Prophet permit lampooning the pagans with poetry? I have found a Hadith about it in sahih Bukhari and it sounds harsh.
Answer: Jazakum Allah khayr for your question.
There are various narrations found in Sahih al Bukhari that inform us that the Prophet ﷺ permitted the poet Hassan bin Thabit (May Allah be pleased with him) to attack the pagans with poetry. One such hadith is often translated as, ‘Lampoon them and Gabriel is with you.’
The Arabic verb used in the hadith is, ihjuhum [اهجهم] or hajahum [هاجهمْ], which both stem from the root verb هجم. This verb carries the meaning of attacking, counter-attacking, assaulting, and criticising [Mua’jam al Wasit].
Poets in the pre-Islamic era were the mouthpiece of Arab tribal sentiment. Not too dissimilar to the poetic eulogizing found in ancient Greek and Scandinavian traditions in which past warriors were immortalised and legends carved, while living figures were praised and prompted to ever champion their people, often to the death.
The context of the hadith in question were at a time of hostility. The Prophet ﷺ had many enemies amongst the pagan Arab tribes, who sought to destroy the rising Muslim state and overturn the shifting power of the peninsula.
Language and the oral tradition played an all important role among tribal people of the time. The most eloquent orator was honoured and utilised as a powerful weapon, what we would now call a propaganda tool. When the tribes wanted war or any form of revenge, the poets would be the voices who rallied the tribes together and spurred the armies on, cleverly using language and metaphor to arouse unbridled hatred for the enemy.
The poets not only seized the hearts of men through their words but they also attacked and humiliated their opponents. Those who attacked the beloved Prophet ﷺ through poetry, were not innocent ‘artists’ caught up in political tribal struggles, but like many modern media outlets, they were the manufacturers of propaganda.
Not only did enemy poets attack the Prophet ﷺ and the religion, but some, such as K’ab bin al Ashraf, dishonoured the Muslim women through their poetry [see Ibn Ishaq].
The Principle of Like for Like
Islam permits retaliation for crimes in some situations. While forgiveness is always superior, Islam is a practical religion which recognises that ‘turning the other cheek’ or taking a pacifist stance is not always in the best interest of the religion and Muslim affairs.
Even in personal affairs, sacred law permits that a person who was insulted to insult the person back with exactly the same insult hurled at him, with no blame on him. This has strict conditions and doesn’t mean it is recommended, but it is permitted in some situations. [Fath al Mu’in]
It was in this way that the Prophet ﷺ gave permission for Hassan to defend him ﷺ, the religion, and the Muslims. The Prophet did not initiate the use of poetry as an offensive. This is known through other similar authenticated hadith which mention that the Prophet ﷺ was asked by Hassan for permission to recite poetry against the pagans, and by A’isha (May Allah be please with her) who said that Hassan ‘used to defend the Messenger of Allah ﷺ’ [Sahih al Bukhari]
We should also note that despite the permission to ‘lampoon’ the pagans through poetry, this was not an outright permission to ridicule, slander, or abuse in them in whatever way Hassan wished, but rather according to the dictates of the shariah.
This includes not insulting their lineage, or even their beliefs and deities. We can see that there were conditions to the Prophet’s permission, for the Prophet’s mentioned his concern to Hassan’s request by asking, ‘What about my ancestry?’ [Sahih al Bukhari], meaning, how can you insult them without insulting me?’ To which Hassan promised he will word the poetry in such a way that no such transgression would occur.
What was allowed then was to mention the flaws that are existent in them and retaliate like for like, with insults which the enemy has used as an insult (though not prohibited things such as the honour of women etc. even if the enemy used these tactics).
From the above, we can see that there was nothing harsh in the Prophet ﷺ permitting Hassan to lampoon the pagans, especially because it was a time of hostilities and warfare. And Allah knows best.
May Allah make us of those who defend our beloved Prophet ﷺ with the best of words and deeds.
[Shaykh] Jamir Meah
Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.